Why the NFL’s ‘all-star’ game was sloppy, and why the experiment should end

NFL

In an attempt to engineer a perfect game Monday night, the NFL simply overthought it by mixing and matching its officiating crew with top-performing officials.

Fortunately for us all, the unprecedented decision did not impact the outcome of an otherwise spectacular matchup in the Los Angeles Rams‘ 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The net effect, however, was still not positive and served as a reminder of why most officials prefer to work in their assigned crews. If this was a test run for future assignments, it should be shelved immediately.

The game was tightly called, producing the third-highest total of penalties in a game (26, including five that were declined) this season. There were some moments of confusion, as there are in every game, most notably when referee Clete Blakeman’s crew charged Chiefs coach Andy Reid with a timeout when he was pointing out that a ball had been tipped. And there was at least one big play, a 7-yard third-quarter touchdown run by Rams quarterback Jared Goff, that produced the type of granular scrutiny the league was trying to avoid. (Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein appeared to rise from his stance prior to the snap, but nothing was called.)

Worse, the implication that Monday’s assembled crew was best qualified for the job suggests that the officials originally assigned to the game — led by referee Jerome Boger — were not. Boger and some members of his crew were reassigned to Sunday’s game between the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals, who had a combined 3-15 record entering the week.

Was that matchup, and those teams, less important to the NFL? Probably. Should the NFL signal it so obviously? No. On Twitter, former NFL referee Terry McAulay wrote that he was “thoroughly disheartened” at the “perception that some officials are ‘stars’ and some are not worthy,” inferring that the league is employing officials it does not fully trust.

I understand what the NFL was trying to accomplish. You don’t have to go further than the 2015 season, when a series of high-profile officiating gaffes in prime-time games rained criticism on the league. It wouldn’t have taken much — an inadvertent whistle here, a clock error there — to distract from what proved to be a historically entertaining game. The NFL wanted to minimize the chance for a major mistake. It surely wanted to avoid a flag fest as well, and Blakeman entered the game averaging 13.9 flags per game with his usual crew, sixth fewest in the league.

But the decision to use members of four different crews was a distraction in itself. In addition to spurring questions about the officials who were reassigned, it probably contributed to the flag frequency rather than tamping it down.

The 26 penalties not only doubled Blakeman’s 2018 average but were the most called by a crew he led since at least the start of the 2012 season, according to the ESPN Stats & Information database. In those seven seasons, a span of 100 games, Blakeman had been involved in only seven games that produced 20 or more flags.

It’s only fair to point out that the Chiefs entered the game, and departed it, with the most team penalties in the league (116) by far. The next-highest team (the Cleveland Browns) has 93. Teams have as much to do with penalty frequency as do officials. But it’s not unreasonable to think that officials called in to provide “all-star” work err on the side of throwing flags. Monday night’s crew did so 10 times in the first quarter alone.

In comments on their “Last Call” show for Fox Sports, former NFL officiating chiefs Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino noted the extra pressure the assignment would bring. It meant that any possible mistake — and they happen in every single game — would be more heavily scrutinized. If the intent was to import a crew that would “let them play” and allow the game to speak for itself, it produced the opposite result.

The NFL has not explained its decision to veer from its practice of keeping regular-season crews largely intact. There are individual scheduling changes in every season, sometimes because of illness or logistics and occasionally for performance reasons, as noted by NFL spokesman Michael Signora in a statement Sunday. But before Monday night, full mix-and-matching hadn’t occurred until the playoffs. Pereira, in fact, said he couldn’t remember seeing more than two replacement officials in a regular-season crew.

Speculation that the decision was related to the NFL’s original plans to play the game in Mexico City strike me as naïve. This wasn’t a matter of passports or international travel. The NFL applied special treatment to its game of the year, hoping to create an ideal environment for flawless administration and good calls. But whatever it gained in competence it lost in credibility and process.

Most officials compare themselves to offensive linemen, who generally perform best among a familiar group of teammates. While it might sound good in theory, assembling a group of unacquainted officials is no less difficult than dropping five veteran offensive linemen onto a field and asking them to play together at a high level.

The NFL’s intent here was understandable but unrealistic, and it inadvertently revealed internal concerns about across-the-board competence. Hopefully this was a one-off decision for a unique game, with regular order soon to follow.

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